Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Writer's Guilds

Last night I attended a reception on Fairfax in West Hollywood put on by the Writers Guild of Canada, or WGC as we all say. And why would the WGC come to West Hollywood all the way from Toronto?

Well, they have WGC 400 writers in and around Southern California and many of them are members of both guilds, WGC and WGAw (Writers Guild of America West). WGAe is mainly New York.

Both guilds, while differing in how they work are probably the closest allies of any guilds. I met a few people I knew but mostly strangers and of the 400 only about a hundred showed up, which is typical of our Guilds.

And again, I noticed that 90% or more were men, which reflects both guilds more or less. But what's interesting is how they get along and what they are like.

I've always found that WGC is much easier to deal with, being smaller they tend to know more of us members, Maureen Parker, Exec Director of the Guild was very easy to talk to and she knew me very well. It doesn't quite work like that with WGC, it's difficult to talk to the higher-ups unless you're John Wells.

The difference shows right at the front door, the WGC offices in Toronto are warm and friendly while the WGA offices are ruled by security guards who seem to think they're guarding the White House and demand proof that you are who you say you are. It even goes to the parking attendant in the underground parking lot who feels it's his duty to make sure you have business there.

And not remembering that they and everyone else in that big building across the street from Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax,  get paid by dues that we pay.

I've met a few WGA people and they're pleasant enough, but generally, they're tougher than the Canadian Guild people, no doubt the typical difference between Americans and Canadians. Naturally this reflects the size of the Guilds, it's estimated that WGA has anywhere from 7500 to 10,000 members, it seems nobody really knows the numbers and if you ask, they rarely offer more.

How the Guilds interact is interesting too; for example, if I want to work in Canada on a Canadian project I have to ask WGA permission, and IF they give it to you (usually they do but they begin to act very protective), the rate of pay has to be equal to the basic scale fee of WGA.

They like to remind you that they are permitting you to work in Canada.

There's another interesting agreement both guilds have and that's foreign levies. This in itself is interesting. Foreign levies are taxes collected whenever my movies (or anyone's) are shown in foreign countries. I've never quite understood it and have never really had anyone else explain it well.

What comes into play here is copyright. Copyright is usually held by the writer, which means he/she owns the property even if it's sold. But here something shows how greedy American studios and networks are;

In Canada a writer cannot sell his right to the screenplay. He can sell it of course, but he never loses the copyright.

However in the U.S., the writer has to sell his copyright, and loses much income because of this. Why?

It's because studios and networks won't buy the screenplay unless the copyright is included. They figured out long ago that writers shouldn't be able to make a little more money. The U.S. is the only country that does this.

So what does it mean?

It means that if I do a Canadian movie, I get all the royalties from the foreign levies due me. In the U.S., I get half. The other half goes to the studio or producer or network. And this is something that WGA apparently supports.

But the good side of the Guilds is simply this; without them writers would never get paid. And I'm not exaggerating. I've had to fight for money a dozen times and without the guild's powers I wouldn't have been paid.

I think it's partially because writers are the only ones who do their job away from movie sets and locations. We go away and come back in a month or so and hand them a screenplay and they have to pay us.

Even if the movie is made or not!

Our screenplay is there before the actors are, before the crew, before anybody except the producer and sometimes their financing falls through. It's happened to a few of my screenplays.

But all in all, it's good to have them covering your back.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Art vs Tech

I was working in Final Cut Pro at home over the week-end and had some problems and went to one of the many forums where you can get help. I did get help but also some comments relating to my question, which some deemed "101". Or too simple for them to waste time on.

Many years ago, I was working as a TV producer in a small market, producing mostly commercials and corporate films. It was my first real job as a producer, having worked before as a film editor for local news and a newswriter and finally as a news cameraman.

I had lived in Vancouver and had a small film company with my friend Phil Borsos. When I say small, I mean infinitely small. We rarely got any work. So when the job came up at a city of 125,000 I took it, even though Vancouver was bigger. My idea was to get the job as producer, stay for a year and leave for a bigger market. That was the norm and still is today.

Immediately I sensed the local crew didn't care for me, they felt someone local should have gotten the job. In time that dissipated and we all got along well. But there was something else I began to learn.The difference between the techies and the dreamers.

Or, those who are creative and those who play with circuits, diagrams and scopes.

We used 2-inch video tape machines in those days, 1976 to be accurate. The video players were the size of refrigerators and whenever we had to edit a commercial we used two or sometimes three of the huge "VTRs".

Just to understand the scale of tapes, a cassette player tape is less than a half inch. These monsters recorded on 2 inch tape. And there were no mouses to move around the screen. We would play the recorded tape and when I said stop, the tech would stop.

He'd mark it with a sharpie pen and we'd move on. In an hour we had black marks all over the tape as we recorded to another. Amazingly it worked well. Today you can do on iMovie we couldn't even imagine back then.

And that's also where conflict began to come in.

I was looking at a monitor and noticed the actor in the commercial had green tones to his face. I told the tech and he said the colors are correct. I looked at him and he was looking at the scopes on the VTR where images were in scale form, lines and charts.

At that moment I realized we weren't talking about the same thing; he saw images in the form of wavy lines, I saw them as real people. Eventually he changed the color for me, under duress. After that we never really became close friends.

Back to editing.

Ever since the beginning of movies, there were editors and they cut film into movies. That all changed in the last 20 years when editing became video-based. We still shoot with film but it's all transferred to digital video and edited there.

The big edit program is Avid, then there's Final Cut Pro, Adobe and a few others. But back in the pre-digital era the editor had a mechanical editing machine,  a Moviola (that goes back to the 1930's and still works great), and then flatbed editing machines like Steenbecks and Kems.

Flatbeds were a great new thing in their day, you could roll the film forward and back and see your scene on a screen about 12 inches or so. This is how some of the greatest movies ever were edited.

Now it's pretty much gone, digital has taken over. In some ways it's better and in others it's not. But another thing is the tech part. I manage to stumble through most of it, but often need help, not for the content, but for software issues.

Film editors on Steenbecks never had issues with the mechanics of the machine, they worked flawlessly for years and years.

But digital is finicky, it's a computer and as we all know, they screw up more often than not. I spend almost as much time fixing, correcting, cursing and looking for solutions as I do actually editing.

In fact there are at least a dozen forums for Final Cut Pro and hundreds of videos on Youtube to help those of us who aren't as technical as the others seem to be. The biggest problem on a Steenbeck was a light bulb going out.

So, with all this digital stuff, are movies better? Does it help to have 28-inch monitors and dozens of slick tricks and effects and buttons? Are we more creative?


Look at Citizen Kane, edited on a Moviola with a 6 inch screen and Bridge on The River Kwai (and if you haven't heard of these movies, see them).

So the argument is this;  does a great movie come from technology or does it come from creativity? Tech can bring us great things, iPods, tablets, tiny cameras. But the human element is what elevates them.

In quantum physics, many of those who work in that field say that creativity is the hardest thing for technology to create, maybe impossible. That's the only thing robots can't duplicate. Show 5 people a movie, they'll have 5 different opinions.

Finally there's another element to technology, not only in film and TV but also in our everyday world.

It takes away more jobs than it creates.

Right now I'm editing 3 different short films, one for Ghostkeeper, another for Emperor of Mars and yet another for a documentary on film director Raoul Walsh. All on Final Cut Pro.

And in the process I have taken away at least 12 jobs with my iMac and FCP. I can edit, score, color and time my little projects. And with a growing population and less jobs, the next 50 years is going to be pretty interesting...

(Thurs: 10 things I've learned in 30 years)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The business of screenwriting courses Pt 2

As most of you probably know I did a 2 year stint teaching screenwriting for UCLA's extension classes. This wasn't really a job, just a sideline that I thought I might enjoy and make a few bucks (actually very few bucks).

One of the first things I realized was that I knew a hell of a lot more than I thought I knew. How did I figure this out, you ask? Not vanity, not even imagination. Rather it was something pretty basic.

The students asked me questions and I answered them. And the answers didn't come from a book, they came from years of experience. Anybody who's been in the business for at least 10 years knows this. You collect a lot of stories as well as a reality kick in the head.

And that's where this part of the previous blog starts. 

When I started writing screenplays, way back in the early 1970's, there was only one book that was available for aspiring screenwriters and it wasn't even a book on screenwriting. It was a book called "The Art of Dramatic Writing" by Lajos Egr.

It was written in 1946.

And it is primarily a book on playwriting. There is a short chapter at the end that refers to screenplays but it's emphasis on character is without doubt, the best ever written. If you know how to write character, you'll get along fine in this business.

Along the way I acquired two other books, Syd Field's Screenplay and 500 Ways To Beat The Hollywood Scriptwriter. These 3 books are all you'll ever need. Drama doesn't change, it started with someone telling a story around a fire in a cave until the Greeks came along and refined it to an art form.

There's another book I like, but impossible to find now, and it's called "Steal This Plot". I can't count the times it gave me a new idea.

The last time I checked there were at least 300 books on screenwriting on Amazon. There's even a Writer's Store here in Burbank, it used to be in Westwood but moved in the last few years.

It was also the place where I got angry at the salesperson who tried to persuade some of my students that Final Draft software was the professional software, rather than Screenwriter (my preferred software). I called him and told him not to do that, I also called the Screenwriter people who said that the salespersons were always doing that.

I get emails from the Writer's Store now, they hawk their latest books with titles like "10 Steps to a Bulletproof Outline, Create Dynamic Characters, Take Your Story to the Next Level".

There are hundreds of courses and writing Gurus all across the country now telling aspiring writers and even experienced writers that they can always know more.

 There's even a Master Results Life Coach who offers topics like "Collapse Your Fears & Explode into your confidence".

Do you need these people?  Really, really need?

You know the answer. 

The answer is simple. The best way to learn how to write is to write. What some guru tells you on Saturday will be long gone by Monday when you're facing that damn blank computer screen.

But some need those people and that's okay too, but don't expect eureka moments all the time. I always told my students that I can show them how I write but I can't show them how to write good. That comes from them.

And that's the key to a good script; have a story you need to tell. If you want to get into screenwriting for the money, forget it. Sure there's millionaire screenwriters and they are damn good and worth it. But they all are driven by passion, not money. 

And now, to really mess around, I have decided to write #301, or... my book on screenwriting, based on my 2 years of lectures at UCLA. It'll be a different book with much of the blogs in it as well as my basic formula for writing.  It's also mixed in with real-life experience. Students who took my classes always said they chose it because of one major thing;

I wrote movies and TV episodic that were actually made. Lots of them.

Does that mean I know it all?

Of course not, hell, I sometimes think I don't know anything. 

But ask me something about screenwriting.  Anything.

Monday, March 19, 2012

You've written how many...?

The fact is that most screenplays, even those scripted by well-regarded writers, don't get made"
                                    - Larry McMurtry

There is a great divide among writers, there are those who write one screenplay in their whole career and others that write dozens. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. I joined the popular website Linkedin some years ago but rarely followed it mostly because it was for aspiring writers and filmmakers.

I realized that I had more credits than almost all of them and that there were many other people there just to sell their services to hungry writers and filmmakers. So why would I want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, in the words of Groucho Marx.

I get notices from Linkedin, that I should join in more, and yesterday I went in to read about a British aspiring writer who asked advice as he was coming to LA with a handful of scripts and would shop around the studios and get some interest.

Other aspiring writers gave advice; one said it's relatively easy to get companies to look at your material, others said bring money and still others said he should make contacts before he left England.

And you're asking why I don't like Linkedin?

Screenwriting has become the new guy/girl on the block. When movies began people from all over America, and the world, came to Hollywood to be stars. Nobody every really wanted to be a writer or a director.

That began to change in the 70's, when spec screenplays began to sell. Usually studios developed screenplays over periods of time but suddenly we read about unknown writers selling screenplays for millions of dollars. And it was true.

Writers like Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas and a handful of others made fortunes. It's rumored Eszterhas wrote out a storyline on a napkin and sold it for $4 million. It was called Jade and it was made.

But Jade changed things; it was a flop. And so studios went back to developing screenplays to make sure they were good. Or as good as they could make.

But the 70's were the era of the Movie Brats, Lucas, Coppola, De Palma, Scorceses and even Spielberg. Audiences began to know their names and along with them, writer's names. Top that off with film schools beginning everywhere.

And lots of teachers to teach them. Mostly writers who failed (my agent's claim) were eager to tell aspiring writers of the riches to be had. In truth a few spec screenplays were sold from time to time, but upon examining them, the writers were pretty much professional by that time. And they had major agents or friends of major agents.

Someone once said the best way to break into movies is to know someone working in the movies. If there is a golden rule, that's it.

The 80's brought scores of film students and they all wanted to write and direct. And soon every college that could afford to, started a film class. The best were always USC, UCLA, AFM and NYU and still are. And according to some film critics they really didn't learn how to make movies beyond the wideshot/mediumshot/closeup school of directing.

But word kept saying that there's money to be made in screenplays and all you need is the software, Screenplay or Final Draft. The joke became "who in America isn't writing a screenplay".

By the 21st century, there were more screenwriters hanging around than ever. But very few if ever made a sale, spec or assignment. And that's when some people realized there's money to be made.

Film schools could give you the basics, if you cared to learn them, but what was really needed was something else.

Screenwriting Gurus or... motivational speakers and tutors.

Guys like Syd Field and Robert McKee offered 2-3 day courses in "how to improve your writing or how to write great stuff. Others followed quickly with even more details; private instruction. They offered sure ways to sell your screenplay and help getting there. There's even screenwriter coaches, designed after "life coaches" for people who just couldn't get there by themselves.

Screenwriting magazines appeared and offered the same thing; they had experts offering how to make your screenplay sell.

And the truth of it was that most of them never sold a screenplay in their lives, in fact many never even wrote a screenplay. And I know of one famous screenwriting guru who, when assigned to do a rewrite on someone else's screenplay, couldn't do it.

I think I got a lot more to say on this so I'm gonna make it a 2-partner. Some of this was said in older blogs but it's a new day, sun is shining in Sherman Oaks and I got ideas to be played with.

Tune in Thursday if you're around.

(Thurs: How many have you written?)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

Today's our dad's birthday, he would have been 92. He always laughed that his birthday was on the "Ides of March" which did not bode well for Caesar. "Pa" as I called him with reference to Johnny Crawford who played the son on the western series "The Rifleman".

There were many references to movies and TV shows, I insisted that my brother was named David after the TV version of Davy Crockett from the 1950's. Several years ago we actually went to Fess Parker's winery around Paso Robles, Parker played Davy Crockett.

Our dad was a garage mechanic who loved working on cars and the car in the photo was from the Roswell movie I did for Paramount in 1998. Ironically it was also the time he discovered that he had lung cancer and the fact that I was actually on the film, shooting in Manitoba, was amazingly coincidental.

I hadn't been back to Manitoba for years and to actually be in Winnipeg when my dad arrived for tests was unexpected, sad and yet, we had a great time while he was there. He always flirted the girls and a few decided to look after him for me, a treat he thoroughly enjoyed.

It was also the one time he had a chance to say something about me.

Being a writer is often hard to convey to "normal people", the ones who work at jobs you can understand; there are farmers, gardeners, bank employees, insurance salesmen and hundreds more.

And they're pretty easy to explain. Everyone knows what a mechanic does. 

But when it comes to writers; especially in our lower-middle class life, it was more difficult, in fact it was treated with suspicion; in other words not having a "real job". I was treated more like "the guy who doesn't have a real job". Same goes for my brother Dave who is a desk editor in Calgary.

It's hard to tell a farmer what we do exactly; and again, in our world very few Ukrainians became doctors and lawyers and politicians. Ours was the first generation that actually finished school and most importantly, didn't have to work to help the family.

Our dad never really commented much on that, nor my mom, they were happy that we were doing something we loved, even if they didn't quite understand it. Our dad was also very internal, he never discussed matters of the heart.

Instead he would fix our consistently broken cars. That was how he showed he cared about us. And ultimately it meant the same as saying it. If we needed help, it was always there.

So it came as a surprise one day on the Roswell film set that one of the pretty PA's approached me and said that my dad was really proud of me, in his words, "that's my son who wrote this movie."

 I said that was impossible, he might think it, but he'd never say it. But she heard it. He never mentioned it to me, and he never would, because he wasn't that kind of person.  But through out the years I heard that he often talked about "his boys" and that they were as good at what they did as he was at what he did. And I didn't need more.

He lived for 2 more years and continued playing in his own "Ukrainian/bluegrass" band which he loved as much as anything and winning violin contests both in Canada and the U.S.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Who IS watching TV

The Academy Awards this year had better ratings than the last few years and, to my mind, a better show with Billy Crystal. Of course I'm in that over 50 crowd that the critics and pundits attack. Well over 50 too. 

They complained about the show and that the age group is almost all white and men. And there wasn't much for the younger people. And they were right.

Because most young people aren't watching TV, at least not on the traditional TV screen in the living room. But there's another reason; they have a lot of other stuff to do.

Like texting. And going to school and don't identify with silent movies or war movies or movies about Margaret Thatcher. They like werewolves and vampires and zombies and strangely enough they like Ghostkeeper.

Go Figure.

The networks aren't happy because they can't figure out what kids want to see. By kids I mean the 18-24, the ones just coming out of school or college and are ready to buy everything they can see.

But they aren't really doing that; they buy clothes and iPads and tunes but mostly with money from their parents or grandparents. A lot of them stay at home. In Florida the state raised the age for health care for kids living at home.

To the age of 30. 

Yep, apparently more than a few kids are staying at home with their parents until 30 and maybe even more. There's a lot of reasons; maybe it costs too much to find a place to live, maybe they like staying at home. Or maybe their parents want to keep them.

There's a course ad I saw in the LA Times for parents who need help to detach themselves from their adult children. Really. 

Back to TV, where networks pray for young audiences, strangely enough, the network with the lowest ratings is CW, formerly the Warner channel. Those are shows featuring that demographic, 18 to 24. They're lucky to get a million viewers.

NCIS, another popular show with older people gets over 25 million on a good week. And of course that singing show gets about the same this season. And those are watched by mostly older people. 

Why do you think the singers sing old hits, even from the 1960's?

They want the kids and the boomers. And it works.

But still they don't get all the kids and that bugs the hell out of them.  Then there's a show like Harry's Law, about a 60 year old woman who is fired from her law firm and starts another.

Of course, she has the obligatory assortment of beautiful men and women around her. I honestly think those hunks and hunkettes could trade places on any of the dramas and nobody would notice. 

Then there's the shows; bawdy sitcoms like 2 Broke Girls and that other 2 show. And lots of lawyer dramas and hospital dramas and cop/procedural shows. Maybe too many. But all of those shows I mentioned (except the sitcoms) have life and death situations.

Life and death always makes for better stories but there were some episodic shows that managed to defy the odds; shows like Northern Exposure, 30-Something, The Wonder Years, even Doggy Howser which dealt with interesting characters.

But those are gone... for now anyways.

And there's a whole other crowd who like horror and supernatural thrillers. These are the 18-24 group and they are looking for every film of that genre that they can find. And they don't necessarily want to see new movies.

Ghostkeeper is a good example. It had it's little run way back in 1981 to about 1986 and disappeared. For the most part, it was forgotten. Then some of those kids in Germany discovered an old VHS cassette in horrible condition and started circulating it.

Then I got a call from a horror magazine writer in England wanting to interview me. And then a small but faithful group of kids found it in Toronto and asked me to go introduce it. If you've been with me a long time, I won't bother to explain more but...

... because of them, I'm going to re-release Ghostkeeper in the next few weeks.

All because of the 18-24's.

I like them. I really like them.

And it's not only my "forgotten" film, I've heard from other writers and directors who have experienced the same thing. My friend Paul Lynch has a handful of them, including the original Prom Night (which has it's own Facebook) and Humungus (don't ask).

So while the big networks wallow in their quest to grab and hold the 18-24's, I'm satisfied with my little piece of the pie.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lost Footage movies

Most of you probably know this, but bear with me.

In 1999 a movie came out that changed the film industry. And it wasn't a major studio and had actors in it that nobody knew. And it cost around $25,000 to make but with some cleaning up and fixing, it cost around $60,000.

It made around $240 million dollars world-wide.

And it created a whole new genre along with a nickname; "lost footage movie". 

The Blair Witch Project was about 3 young people who were looking for an urban legend called the Blair Witch who lived near a small town called Blair in Maryland. With a film and video camera, they hiked into the woods and were never seen again.

The movie is made up of footage that the three students were shooting, and it was found some time later. What we see is what they saw (or heard) during their search. Thus the term, "lost footage".

The movie worked for several reasons; one of them being that it was such a bare movie, camera was shaky and you never really saw anything. It was a great example of not showing blood and gore, rather it left whatever happened to the 3 kids to your imagination.

And your imagination can come up with some horrible things.

The makers of Blair Witch made a sequel, this time with a structured screenplay, but it didn't have the impact of the original.

So what does Hollywood do when a movie that almost all of the studios passed on makes $240 million? They copy it.

There were a handful of imitations but none with the freshness and originality of the Blair movie.

Then another movie came out with similar themes; it was called Paranormal Activity and again, revolutionized the "lost footage genre". 

It had a camera trained on a bedroom where two people slept with their door open. We watched nothing happen for the first part, but then we see things like lights going on and off in the hallway, bumps in the night and other strange things.

Then we see the wife wake up and leave and then the husband leaves. And then... well, you have to see it.

And Paranormal Activity, which cost $15,000 made almost $200 million.

It spawned 2 sequels, none as original as the first. It also signaled producers that the lost footage genre was alive and well. There have been a handful of them that made it to the big screen and probably a few handfuls of copy-cats that never made it to anywhere.

Last night I watched an interesting one; The Last Exorcism, which started off good, and actually had good actors (something that isn't always considered in lost footage movies) and had some really good suspense.

But it fizzled out with an ending taken from Rosemary's Baby, except not as good.

Which leaves me.

I had a screenplay based on a jetliner being retired and flown to the junkyard. I called it Deadhead, the term used by airlines and others to describe flying back to their base and not working. But I didn't like it. It needed something else.

And it came to me watching a Resident Evil movie (I love Mila Jovovich, a fellow Ukrainian). There was also something else that I remembered, a movie called The Ghost of Flight 401, based loosely on a true story of a jetliner that crashed and supposedly the ghost of the pilot was seen on other jetliners of that airline.

Whenever I get these epiphanies I take them with caution as they could become horrible ideas when I wake up the next day. But this one lingered.

I would have to make some major changes in the original screenplay but it wasn't really that hard. I asked several of my film friends, directors, writers and producers. They all liked the change.

Doesn't mean that they're right, after all, they are my friends. But they are also brutally honest to a fault.

I always find it odd how I can write warm, cuddly family movies for Hallmark and then turn around and write supernatural and sci-fi movies (refer to my credits on My first movie was a supernatural that maybe lacked a bit of supernatural but was high on the creepy meter. Maybe it's not odd at all.

So as of now, I'm at page 35 and having a lot of fun. "Having fun" in a writer's world means that it seems to be finding legs, that you can see what the next page is going to be. And that's a blessing because if you have to struggle, it's got a good chance of falling by the wayside.

So is it a copy? Am I just copying something someone else did before me?

I guess it's "yes". But there's not much in this film business that hasn't been done. Mine is a little different as this ghost is on the airplane and the 8 people on board have no way to get out, nor land.

Blair Witch was fresh for it's time, but the idea's been done before. Everything has been done, it's just how it's done.

One question though; How many silent movies do you think will be done since The Artist won a ton of oscars? That's at least a whole other blog. Tell me what you think; yes or no.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Changing in Midstream

This is what happens when you don't do your homework. And worse, when your homework isn't working. This is bad news for a writer.

As you know, I started a new screenplay a few weeks ago and it started off great. I had 30 pages within 2 weeks. It was called The Christmas Train and had multiple storylines of 7 people. An ensemble piece as it's sometimes called.

I was beginning to realize that writing a story about a train voyage was harder than I expected. And that's because there's limited space. Kind of like a play.

I had researched trains by watching movies like Silver Streak and Orient Express and many others. This sometimes surprises people, that a writer would watch similar movies when he/she starts to write something.

I do it all the time, and most of the professional writers (those being paid for what they're doing) do it as well. Does it mean stealing ideas? Sometimes, but it just gives me an idea what other writers are doing so that I either don't do it the same way or I add a twist.

There's one thing I didn't consider and that was what became a problem. Along with something else. The problem was that my story is entirely on a train. You'd think that was easy, single location, most of which would be a train car either rented or built in a studio with greenscreen outside to show the passing scenery.

That wasn't the problem. What was, was that the other movies I watched all had something in common. There was a murder. Or another crime.

Either way it wasn't my soft Christmas story of strangers riding in a train. And without a murder, there really wasn't much to go with. How much can you do with talking for 2 hours. And since it was a Hallmark type movie, there are no murders. Not even someone stealing a newspaper.

But I still could do a screenplay based on my characters and make it work. In fact I had some great ideas for conflict without blood. Conflict is the heart of all drama. Without conflict there is no story.

And that doesn't mean fights and shouting and shooting. Conflict is best described as somebody wants something and somebody else is stopping that person from getting what they want.

But again, that wasn't the biggest problem with Christmas Train. What was the problem was something I completely overlooked.

I didn't do my homework. Because if I had I would have known that there was another Christmas Train story. Not a movie but a book. A novel called The Christmas Train. And it was written by a very successful book writer.

David Balducci.

He wrote Absolute Power, a political thriller that was made into a movie. He has also sold novels world-wide. And his Christmas Train is almost exactly like mine. Except for one thing.

He was there first.

Now I could probably still write a Christmas Train story, you can't copyright a title after all. But his lawyers could have a case even though I didn't know anything about his book.

So I decided to put the script to sleep for awhile as I could still make it as a movie, as Balducci's book is - at this time - still a novel.

But there was something else that struck me almost on the same day as I discovered Balducci's book.

I had written a suspense thriller set on a jetliner, ironically just like the train story but with real conflict on board. And I had a new idea as to how too make it work a lot better taking into consideration a new genre called "Lost Footage" stories.

And today I've started a new story from and old script with exactly that in mind. As with all scripts, you never really know if you'll finish it, sometimes it is too close to an idea already out there, sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes it's because you can't really figure it out.

Nobody said it's easy.

(Thurs: Lost Footage movies)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Politics of Movies

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross".
                                                                      - Sinclair Lewis, author

Being Canadian, I normally avoid discussions on U.S. p0litics, after 2o years I realized I'm not going to change anyone's mind, nor they mine. But then, half my family, on my mom's side is from Michigan and I did work for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, registering voters in the poor side of Indianapolis. So I do have half a say on this.

There's a new animated movie coming out this week, The Lorax, based on Dr. Seuss' children's book. It's about a furry creature (Lorax) that attempts to stop a bad guy from cutting down a certain type of tree. 

Immediately it got slammed, before it's even out, by right wing Republican organizations who are saying this:

"Hollywood is once again trying to indoctrinate our children and plainly demonizing the so-called 1% and espousing the virtue of green energy policies."  Lou Dobson.

"The Lorax is teaching our kids that the biggest threat to Mother Earth is mankind and it's a ludicrous premise" Media Research Center 

"I don't want the moron writers of The Lorax trying to indoctrinate children and turn them into eco-warriors"  Dan Gainer who also said the Muppets movie was anti-capitalist because the villain is an oilman and rich. 

The U.S. had always been divided. During the Revolutionary War there were actually 3 sides, the rebels, those who supported the British and those who didn't care either way.

Your basic Republican, Democrat and Independent.

I get asked often by the few conservative friends I have, including my ex-wife, why there aren't right wing movies being made. My answer is simple. Nobody wants to make them. And nobody wants to make them because they don't make money.

Remember this; the film industry for the most part is about one thing; money.

Take David Zucker, famous for the Airplane comedies of the 1980's as well as the spoof horror film Scream. After 9/11 he become conservative and decided to make a spoof of Michael Moore. The film was so bad that nobody saw it, even conservatives.

And that's because Zucker, of all people, forgot the golden rule.

I was told that rule by a 92-year old screenwriter a long time ago and I don't think it gets repeated often enough. It's simply this;

Be mad as hell about something but don't ever let the audience know it.

Does that sound contradictory?

My screenplay, Emperor of Mars, which you've seen mentioned a lot in this blog is about a lot of things; a boy growing up, lost love, loneliness, bitterness... and discrimination. But discrimination is buried deep within the texture of the screenplay and... best of all, not all readers recognize it.

Ukrainians and Jews (many from the Ukraine) were discriminated in Canada from the time they arrived around 1895 to the late 50's. In fact a Ukrainian often had to change his name to get a job in the west. My uncle did that.

But yet, it's not the main element of the story, it's put in the background for those who will probably find it and the majority probably won't.

 "Don't let the audience know it". 

There are, however, exceptions.

When Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was made by John Ford in 1939, the conservatives went crazy. The book was publicly banned in some states (guess which) and the book was burned as well. Ford didn't give a damn and made a great film and Warner's had pressure to not release it.

Steinbeck was accused of being a Communist to portray poor families from Oklahoma looking for work against the big business machine. The movie won 3 Oscars.

I got a lot of my values from movies, as did some friends of mine,  the movie theater was where I saw the world, living in a village of 500 people far from any city. I saw Paris and London and New York and Hollywood, where I hoped to be someday.

And I learned of values, be a good person (at least as much as you're able to), don't lie, don't cheat, respect yourself and others and give rather than take. That and parents who had hard-working values.

If it wasn't for greedy ranchers, we'd never have great westerns like Shane and hundreds of other westerns where conservatives were the bad guys.

As my dad used to say; "you don't get rich by being honest".

With the exception of movie stars who win the lottery, that's still my basic rule in life.